Attorney General William Barr is facing lawmakers’ questions today for the first time since releasing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, in what promises to be a dramatic showdown as he defends his actions before Democrats who accuse him of spinning the investigation’s findings in President Donald Trump’s favour.
Barr’s appearance before the Senate’s judiciary committee in Washington was expected to highlight the partisan schism around Mueller’s report and the Justice Department’s handling of it.
It will give the attorney general his most extensive opportunity to explain the department’s actions, including a news conference held before the report’s release, and for him to repair a reputation bruised by allegations he’s the president’s protector.
A major focus of the hearing was expected to be the Tuesday night revelation, in reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, that Mueller expressed frustration to Barr in a letter to the Justice Department and in a phone call, with how the conclusions of his investigation were being portrayed.
A copy of Mueller’s letter to Barr was released Wednesday. In his letter, Mueller raised concerns about a letter that Barr sent to Congress detailing what he said were Mueller’s principal conclusions.
Mueller said Barr’s letter “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance” of the special counsel’s work and conclusions.
BREAKING: Letter from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to Attorney General Barr. <a href=”https://t.co/oDJm6coP8G”>pic.twitter.com/oDJm6coP8G</a>
It is believed the Democrat-led House judiciary committee is nearing a date on which Mueller will testify, committee chair Jerry Nadler of New York told reporters.
The Republican-led Senate committee on Wednesday is being chaired by a close ally of the president. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in his opening statement, asserted there was no doubt Russia interfered in the last presidential election.
“It wasn’t some 400-pound guy sitting somewhere,” he said, mimicking a line Trump used in a 2016 presidential debate.
Graham praises Mueller, but not the FBI
While Trump has continually assailed the probe and even accused Mueller of bias, Graham in his opening statement praised the thoroughness of the investigation and praised the former FBI director’s integrity.
Graham also praised the White House co-operation with Mueller’s investigators, an assertion many Democrats and Trump critics are likely to bristle at, given that Trump did not sit down for an in-person interview, opting for a written question-and-answer exchange. As well, he asserted the report made it clear Trump did not obstruct justice.
But Graham also hit on familiar Republican charges that the FBI’s Russia investigation were tainted by law enforcement bias against Trump, reading aloud several derogatory texts by agent Peter Strzok, who was assigned to the special counsel team but removed weeks later.
Strzok was also a part of the investigation into the use of Trump rival Hillary Clinton of a so-called homebrew server system at her home while serving as secretary of state for former president Barack Obama. Graham blasted the handling of that particular investigation in his statement.
In prepared testimony released by the Justice Department, Barr says that Mueller finished his investigation without interference and that neither he nor any other Justice Department official overruled any proposed action.
Barr also will defend his decision to release the bottom-line conclusions of Mueller’s report. Barr will say he “did not believe that it was in the public interest to release additional portions of the report in piecemeal fashion.”
Democrats are likely to press Barr on statements and actions in the last six weeks that have unnerved them. The tense relations are notable given how Barr breezed through his confirmation process, picking up support from a few Democrats and offering reassuring words about the Justice Department’s independence and the importance of protecting the special counsel’s investigation.
The first hint of discontent surfaced last month when Barr issued a four-page statement that summarized what he said were the main conclusions of the Mueller report. In the letter, Barr revealed that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had cleared Trump of obstruction of justice after Mueller and his team found evidence on both sides of the question but didn’t reach a conclusion.
After the letter’s release, Barr raised eyebrows anew when he told a congressional committee he believed the Trump campaign had been spied on, a common talking point of the president and his supporters. A person familiar with Barr’s thinking has said Barr, a former CIA employee, did not mean spying in a necessarily inappropriate way and was simply referring to intelligence collection activities.
He also equivocated on a question of whether Mueller’s investigation was a witch hunt, saying someone who feels wrongly accused would reasonably view an investigation that way. That was a stark turnabout from his confirmation hearing, when he said he didn’t believe Mueller would ever be on a witch hunt.
On April 20th, I asked Barr, “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?” His answer was, “I don’t know whether Mueller supported my conclusion.”<br> <br>We now know Mueller stated his concerns on March 27th, and that Barr totally misled me, the Congress, and the public. He must resign. <a href=”https://t.co/rod404BbYo”>pic.twitter.com/rod404BbYo</a>
Then came Barr’s April 18 news conference to announce the release of the Mueller report later that morning.
He repeated about a half-dozen times that Mueller’s investigation had found no evidence of collusion between the campaign and Russia, though the special counsel took pains to note in his report that “collusion” was not a legal term, and also pointed out the multiple contacts between the campaign and Russia.
In remarks that resembled some of Trump’s own claims, he praised the White House for giving Mueller’s team “unfettered access” to documents and witnesses. He suggested the president had the right to be upset by the investigation, given his “sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fuelled by illegal leaks.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, on Tuesday accused Barr of misleading the committee in his previous testimony and called on him to resign.
House panel appearance in doubt
Barr is also invited to appear Thursday before the Democratic-led House judiciary panel, but the Justice Department said he would not testify if the committee insisted on having its lawyers question the attorney general.
It remained unclear Tuesday whether Barr would appear before the House committee. That panel’s Democratic chairman, Congressman Jerry Nadler of New York, said witnesses could too easily filibuster when questioned by lawmakers restricted by five-minute time limits. Having lawyers do the questioning enables the committee “to dig down on an issue and pursue an issue.”
“And it’s not up to anybody from the executive branch to tell the legislative branch how to conduct our business,” Nadler said.
The committee will vote on allowing staff to question Barr at a separate meeting Wednesday, at the same time Barr takes questions from the Senate.
The top Republican on the House judiciary panel, Georgia Republican Doug Collins, sharply criticized the plan. Nadler “has taken a voluntary hearing and turned it into a sideshow,” Collins said.
The Justice Department’s stance appears consistent with the Trump administration’s broader strategy of “undermining Congress as an institution,” said Elliot Williams, who previously served as deputy assistant attorney general in the department’s legislative affairs office in the Obama administration.
This story originally appeared on CBC